At 7’ 6” Ella Williams cuts a striking figure in black and white photographs, poised and dignified in Edwardian dress. Reserving herself a place in Black British history, a reminder that we were here before the Windrush. For a moment she’s just a woman about town and then you remember. The lives of Black people in British antiquity are always bound within stories of exploitation and oppression. This statuesque African queen did not escape that legacy.
Born a heartbeat after the abolition of slavery, little is known of Ella William’s life during America’s long and brutal period of racial segregation. An extremely tall cook, who often caught the eye of showmen as they passed through South Carolina, Ella eventually accepted Frank C Bostock’s offer to join his ‘travelling menagerie.’ A description that conceals the true horror behind the exploits of colonial collectors who amassed wealth touring their living acquisitions. Gifts that men like Bostock brought back from Africa, India and the rest of the colonised planet, to be viewed by a population ravaged by disease and poverty. However miserable their existence, the showcasing of these wonders of the world helped seal their faith and pride in the empire.
Madame Abomah, Ella’s stage character, came from the imagination of Bostock himself. A typically crude imagining of African savagery, ‘Madame Abomah,’ Bostock lied ‘was one of the bodyguards of the King of Dahomey. Whose Amazonian warriors have been famous alike for their prowess and cruelty.” Declaring Ella ‘the tallest woman living,’ Bostock toured the British Isles, leaving behind photographs of Ella in London, that continue to intrigue a hundred years later. Little remains of Ella’s own words and what does is transcribed for and by white people. Ella’s true feelings will forever be a mystery, all that’s left of her are snapshots of her enduring dignity and the accounts of people who were a bit too comfortable with human zoos.
Madame Abomah’s fictional back story includes layers of whitewashed history and distortions that remain largely unchallenged by white academia. Bostock knew his audience and Abomah’s story played into all their African fantasies. Did Ella understand the relationship between her own oppression and the trope she was doomed to enact each night? Did she feel a sense of dread as the time approached for her to sing a racist minstrel song? How did she stand up beneath the gaze of the white crowds? Those were the questions that inspired Ella’s monologue ‘Black Sparta.’
Starring Lynette Walters, ‘Black Sparta’ is an intimate conversation between Ella Williams and her alter ego Madame Abomah. Written, produced & directed by Jude Gatiss. Cinematography by Kay.